Stephen Greenhalgh is the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime in London
In August 2011 when I led Hammersmith & Fulham council, I vividly recall being phoned at night by my borough commander who was under attack in her police car from rioters. Her firm response and the mass arrests that followed helped to prevent the serious disorder that blighted the rest of London and other cities in the days after.
Mistakes were made then and fortunately the police are much better prepared for that kind of disorder today, but it reminded everyone how important policing is to the security we all take for granted. The first duty of the State is to protect the public and a core policing function is to maintain the Queen’s Peace.
When people see that the police have lost control of the streets, it affects confidence in a deep and serious way. Londoners’ confidence in policing overall plunged 11 points after the riots and has only now recovered. It was after the 2011 experience that the Metropolitan Police reviewed public order plans and concluded that the police should have water cannon available to them.
A request has now been made by Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Commissioner of the Metropolis, to buy water cannon to respond to the most extreme cases of violent disorder, destruction and rioting in London. The Mayor and I are minded to support this request and we are currently consulting the public.
Unsurprisingly, the noisiest opponents are the ageing anarchists and scruffy students from the Left-wing protest brigade who packed out a
meeting at City Hall last week. Other opposition is orchestrated by pressure groups like Liberty – who never miss a chance to kick the police – and saner politicians who fear that water cannon will be ineffective, or will militarise the police.
The Commissioner is clear that water cannon would be ‘rarely seen and rarely used’ and that they are a vital contingency, not a general
deterrent or a tool for policing protest. Water cannon are useful to disperse violent crowds attacking a fixed location, and London has the most sites of national importance that could get targeted.
While it is no silver bullet, the police believe there are four occasions in the last 15 years in London when deploying water cannon would have been considered, including the 2010 disorder at Millbank when protestors stormed Conservative Party headquarters.
Water cannon would not have stopped the 2011 riots which escalated so quickly, but the police believe they might have helped the emergency response, dispersing rioters and creating space for the fire brigade to fight fires in Croydon.
Speaking from his experience in Northern Ireland where water cannon is used, Lord Empey said “Public disorder will change in character over the years. We are not in the era of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ anymore.” The point being that risks evolve and serious public disorder threats have not gone away.
Conservatives believe in liberty and the preservation of democratic rights – including the right to protest and free assembly. But these rights are not unfettered and we should never tolerate violent disorder. Sir Robert Peel, the great Conservative Home Secretary and founder of the Metropolitan Police had it right – “Liberty does not consist in having your home robbed by organised gangs of thieves”.
Like most people I laud the British policing model, but those Conservatives who claim that water cannon would herald a major shift for British policing are mistaken. Our constables are citizens in uniform who police with the consent of the public under the rule of law – that must not change. But ever since 1829, the toolkit the police use to keep us safe has evolved.
Did the introduction of police dogs in London in 1938 change British policing? Did the licensing of tasers change the model? Or baton rounds for that matter which are far more dangerous and have been licensed for decades? The British policing model is founded on principles, not defined by tools.
Unsurprisingly, some Tories in the shires object to water cannon – including some Conservative Police and Crime Commissioners who have written to the Home Secretary. These PCCs represent safe, rural counties which would never need water cannon; but policing London is different. In the West Midlands, Bob Jones, the Labour PCC is also adamant that water cannons are useless and will never be needed by the police in Birmingham. His voters will hope he is right.
However there is a professional consensus amongst chief constables that water cannon have a limited role to play, and that of all places, London has the clearest need. So despite some politicians effectively declaring ‘water cannon free-zones’,if our consultation shows support and Theresa May agrees to license water cannon, then London can go ahead and have water cannon ready by the summer.
Public order policing involves hard choices. No politician wants to see water cannons deployed, but no one wants to see London in flames, either. The alternatives are certainly worse – letting rioters have their way, or endangering the police and others by using charging with horses or firing baton rounds, which are much more likely to injure or kill.
Public order trained officers do a risky and difficult job – often in the full glare of the media. If water cannon can help them safeguard life, then politicians should be ready to give the police the tools they need to do the job we ask of them.